Of course, everyone’s sad now. The FA was sad. The PFA was sad. Jeremy Corbyn was sad. Chris off Love Island was sad. Of course, if you really wanted to reach for the superlatives, you could describe yourself as “devastated”, as did Debbie Jevans of the EFL. One person who didn’t seem all that sad, curiously enough, was Steve Dale. “I never went to Bury,” he admitted in the week that the club he owned was forced out of existence. “It’s not a place I frequented. For me to walk away from Bury and never go back is a very easy thing to do. I didn’t even know there was a football team called Bury, to be honest with you.”
And now, in large part thanks to Dale, there isn’t. On Wednesday, Bury became the first third-tier club in the history of English football to be forced out of existence, 124 years after it was first formed. There were tears outside Gigg Lane and anguish in the wider community. As for Dale, I suppose when 43 of the 51 companies you have been associated with over the years have been liquidated, perhaps you stop becoming emotionally attached to them after a while. Easy come, easy go – and all that.
For most sentient mammals, however, the sadness was the easy part. Mournful tweets poured forth. Solemn, sober pre-vetted solidarity statements were issued by rival clubs. Bury fans, meanwhile, may well be wondering why all this goodwill and sympathy only surfaced once their club was in its death throes, when their parlous financial situation had been plain to anyone who cared to look for years. Why only now, they might legitimately ask, has everyone decided to care about Bury?
The blunt truth is that football didn’t care. We in the media didn’t care enough about Bury to cover its plight. The EFL didn’t care enough about Bury to ensure that Dale had any more to spend on the club than the £1 with which he bought it. The population of Bury – almost 200,000, of whom about 2 per cent attended on Saturdays – didn’t care enough to show up. Successive Conservative governments didn’t care enough about Bury to spare its council from cuts of over 60 per cent, hampering its ability to offer assistance and accelerating the town’s wider economic decline. While Bury drowned, the game as a whole looked away. Now there is a corpse to stare at, everyone seems perfectly happy to gawp.
And once the gawping had ended, the finger-pointing could begin. Most notably at Dale and previous owner Stewart Day, but also at the wider regulatory system – such as it was – that allowed them to operate. At the EFL for failing to disqualify owners like Dale or Ken Anderson at Bolton, or institute financial rules that would prevent the vast majority of loss-making clubs from spending beyond their means. At the FA, too, for largely abdicating their responsibility for the running of club football.
It was all correct, and yet at the same time, none of it really was. The EFL is really more of a custodian than an executive body, run by and thus exclusively serving the whims of its 72 clubs. With isolated exceptions like Andy Holt at Accrington Stanley, those clubs have fiercely rejected any further regulation of their businesses. Calling for the FA or an independent body to be given greater regulatory powers is all very well until you ask where that power will be taken from: presumably the Premier League and the EFL, who have traditionally been extremely amenable to external oversight. Asking central government to step up and take the lead feels superficially seductive, but given that parliament is currently being held to ransom by an animatronic blonde scarecrow and his boiled-egg sidekick, perhaps it’s asking a little too much of their collective competence to undo more than three decades of deregulated free-market capitalism.
And so while the tale of Bury’s demise may strike you first and foremost as one of capital, of who gets it and who gets to assert it, more specifically it’s about power, and who gets to wield it. The two are inextricably intertwined, of course, but they’re not one and the same thing. As owners up and down the country have discovered, you can buy a football club, you can buy its deeds and its assets, its seats and its laser printers and every pot of paint in the store cupboard. But you can’t buy the time or the silence of the people who support it.
Fan power failed to save Bury. But perhaps the stark shock of seeing a football club vanishing into thin air – pffff, gone – and the yawning tragedy of the void it leaves behind, will jolt others into action. It’s Bury this week, but it could easily have been Bolton or Charlton, Coventry or Blackpool, Oldham or Morecambe or Sunderland or Reading or Ipswich or Birmingham or Macclesfield or Leeds or dozens of others. In order to heed the warning of Bury, however, it’ll require a realisation. It’ll need the millions of good people in English football to recognise that the fate of every club is tied to the fate of every other club, that if one goes we all lose, and to organise and co-operate and militate as never before.
The idea of fans uniting across traditional club boundaries has been cautiously explored of late. A few years ago, Charlton and Coventry fans memorably held a joint march ahead of their league game in protest at their generally useless owners. This week, fans of Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham signed a joint letter to Uefa demanding better treatment of fans at major European finals. Meanwhile the Football Supporters’ Association – itself the result of a merger between the FSF and Supporters’ Direct – has called on crowds this weekend to hold a minute’s applause in the 27th minute in “a nationwide display of solidarity for Bury”.
Imagine if this idea were taken beyond tentative gestures and to its logical conclusion. Imagine if an entire round of fixtures were played out in empty stadiums as a result of a concerted nationwide protest. Imagine the pressure that could be exerted on rogue owners by organised boycotts of the companies they run. Imagine if deeply unpopular initiatives like the EPPP, or the B-team Checkatrade Trophy, could be derailed by sustained campaigns and direct action, rather than simply a crowdfunded banner or a few disgruntled calls to Talksport.
It’s too late to mourn what has been lost. The gales of the market, the spivs and the charlatans, are running riot through English football, and if there’s to be any sort of silver lining to the utter travesty of Bury, perhaps it will be to focus minds. To unite those who believe that football clubs are more than businesses to be run into the ground, to force home the bitter truth that sadness won’t avert the next casualty, that the mismanagement of the game requires synchronised action rather than sweet words, and that no fanbase, however large or vocal, can do any of this on its own. It’s no comfort at all to the tearful fans pinning their scarves and messages outside Gigg Lane, but perhaps Bury died so others may live.